Skeptical Activism Online: How to Avoid the Burnout
Have you ever felt exhausted from seemingly endless struggles with creationists in Youtube comments? Spent too long time bickering on Twitter with quantum mystics who clearly are not worth your time? Gotten caught in a unproductive spiral of trench warfare on a forum with homeopaths? Spent hours writing blog comments on the placebo effect and statistical tests only to have them deleted because the blog owner is a acupuncture-promoting quack?
Most scientific skeptics who engage in online activism sooner or later come across these kinds of enormously frustrating situations. Combating pseudoscience in this way can sometimes become an unhealthy obsession. Here are some tips to make online skeptical activism less frustrating and reduce the risk of a burnout.
Stop having unproductive struggles
One major contributor to skeptical activist burnout is probably unproductive struggles on social media sites and comment sections on various websites. The common problem with these debate avenues is that they are unsuitable for discussing complex scientific topics. Some of them (such as Twitter and Youtube) restrict the number of characters you can use to communicate your skeptical arguments. This forces you to break them up into tiny pieces that will obscure the larger context of your objections. In other avenues (such as Youtube, some Facebook pages and comments on pseudoscientific blogs), the power over your skeptical material rests in hostile hands. This means that proponents of pseudoscience can refuse to publish, delete or edit your comments. Material you have spent hours and hours writing can be distorted or removed in a few seconds. Taking a larger perspective, they can also delete their blog post or video or their website or channel can become defunct or suspended. In both of these cases, your comments go down the drain. Hostile Internet forums also fall in this category for similar reasons. Even friendly forums can sometimes restrict your arguments if they have forum rules that prevent you from going all out against a crank. Furthermore, a lot of forum debates tend to turn into trench warfare where a sentence is quoted and then replied to by a few sentences. This means that it is difficult to keep readers interested in the discussion.
The combination of difficult debate environments and hostile editorial control can frequently lead to frustration as well as seemingly endless struggles. It is also worth pointing out that few people actually read Youtube comments, blog comments and long Twitter conversations. Since pseudoscientific cranks are difficult to convince, the focus should be on convincing bystanders or fence-sitters, providing allies with better arguments and for personal intellectual growth. Social media struggles do not really contribute that much to any of these goals. The simple solution to this problem is to stop arguing with people on these websites. There are few benefits and a lot of difficulty and psychological costs. It is not worth your time.
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Develop a permanent base that you control
As was explained above, two key issues about debating proponents of pseudoscience online is that your material is often temporary and is not under your editorial control once posted. A solution to both of these problems is creating your own permanent base for online skeptical activism. The easiest way is to create your own blog, video channel, podcast or Facebook page. This means that your skeptical content accumulates in the same place over time and readers are directed to the same source, rather than comments and tweets spread across difference places on the Internet. Since it is easy to lose track of what you have written where and the amount of material you have actually produced, the increasing number of posts published on your blog is a good way to remind yourself of how productive you have been. For some, 200 blog posts or videos seems more of an achievement and enduring legacy than, say, a large number of blog comments that you have lost track of the exact number. Also, videos and blog posts tend to be of higher quality than the average blog comment, so it is essentially a way to enrich quality of your skeptical output. After all, few people write a deluge of blog posts or make a lot of videos with 2-3 sentences in it, yet this is typical of many blog comments. Do not sacrifice quality and impact for crusading.
Another benefit of having your own base is that you can moderate the kinds of people and comments that get posted. In other words, if you do not feel like responding to a crank posting a long list of links to various websites and Youtube videos related to 9/11, you do not need to provide him or her with a platform. If you do not think the comment is relevant or just do not have the time, desire or strength to spend hours writing a detailed refutation, you can decline its publication.
Be a skeptical activist on your own terms
Once you have stopped struggling on social media websites that are unsuitable for detailed arguments and developed your own permanent base of operations, it becomes easier to focus on the kinds of skeptical activism you think matters. You can still challenge pseudoscience promoted on those social media websites: just link or take a screenshot of that annoying tweet, Facebook or Youtube comment and write a detailed refutation. Your material will no longer be subject to the whims of cranks and you have all the space you need to make your case. This also allows you to focus on the types of pseudoscience that you want to counter as you do not need to search for discussions already under progress. Instead of just reacting to e. g. Youtube crank comments, you can launch independent attacks of pseudoscience from your own base. Another benefit of this setup is that you can pick and chose among the pseudosciences that you want to debunk and not being tied to individual comment threads. This makes it easier to disconnect from your online skeptical activism if you need a break (i.e. you avoid situations were there is another couple of crank comments up in response to yours that you feel you must respond to).
Stop having unproductive struggles in hostile territory or on websites that have character limitations. Create your own base (blog, video channel, Facebook page etc.) so that your content is not subject to the whims of cranks, launch independent attacks instead of just reacting and disconnect when you need to rest.